Despite being surrounded in an ever-shrinking sector of Marawi city, the Philippines’ defence chief says it will still take “a month or two” to defeat the terrorists who have been holding out since May 23.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said today (Thursday, August 10) that the task would be “complicated, but Marawi will be liberated”.
His words are in stark contrast to a statement he made a month ago, when he said the siege of the city could be resolved in “a week or a month”.
It is now nearly three months since the terrorists began their rampage through the city under the black flag of IS.
Nearly 700 people, including 528 Islamist fighters, have been killed in the conflict. Up to 400,000 people are estimated to have been displaced.
In an interview with Channel NewsAsia today, Mr Lorenzana gave a frank assessment of the many difficulties the Philippines military faced in the battle.
The military, he said, had been caught off guard by the strength of the terrorist forces – some of whom are foreign jihadists and experts in urban fighting.
“Our people were not trained in urban fighting; we have been concentrating on guerrilla warfare, jungle warfare, and so this is actually a new kind of warfare for us,” he added.
He also said that the expertise of the militants was “really unbelievable” and that more than half of the army’s casualties were caused by sniper fire.
The military also faced “a failure of intelligence” after its number-one intelligence officer in Marawi was killed.
“He had people inside working with the group, and he knew where these people were going, every hour of the day,” he said. “But after his death, we were blind. It takes a lot of time to develop intelligence on the enemy.”
When asked why it took so long for the government to admit that there were foreign IS jihadis in the country, Mr Lorenzana said: “We were in denial. I think part of the reason was that the armed forces did not want to accept the fact that the southern Philippines would one day be part of this IS movement.”
Mr Lorenzana said the biggest security concern now was the possible spread of extremists across the of the country. “Because a lot of them are Filipinos, they can travel anywhere in the Philippines, and they can create mayhem or trouble anywhere — especially in in highly populated areas, like Manila and Cebu.”
While the government had not received any information that the terrorists were targeting these cities, Mr Lorenzana said the authorities were taking “proactive measures”.
“We have alerted our troops here in Manila, the police, we have intensified our intelligence, we are trying to monitor the movement of the terrorists in the south.
“If they come here, we have border reports. Even the shipping lanes are being monitored by our navy and our coastguards,” he said.